In the early 1880s, Tampa was an isolated village with a population of less than 1000 and a struggling economy. However, its combination of a good port, Henry Plant’s new railroad line, and humid climate attracted the attention of Vicente Martinez Ybor, a prominent Spanish-born cigar manufacturer.
Ybor had moved his cigar-making operation from Cuba to Key West, Florida in 1869 due to political turmoil in the then-Spanish colony. But labor unrest and the lack of room for expansion had him looking for another base of operations, preferably in his own company town.
Ybor considered several communities in the southern United States and decided that an area of sandy scrubland just northeast of Tampa would be the best location. In 1885, the Tampa Board of Trade helped broker an initial purchase of 40 acres of land, and Ybor quickly bought more.
Cigar making was a specialized trade, and Tampa did not possess a workforce able to man the new factories. To attract employees, Ybor built hundreds of small houses for the coming influx of mainly Cuban and Spanish cigar workers, many of whom followed him from Key West and Cuba. Other cigar manufacturers, drawn by incentives provided by Ybor to further increase the labor pool, also moved in, quickly making Tampa a major cigar production center.
Italian and a few eastern European Jewish immigrants arrived starting in the late 1880s. Finding it difficult to break into the insular cigar manufacturing industry, many instead opened stores and other businesses which catered to cigar workers and the cigar industry.
In 1887, Tampa annexed the neighborhood. By 1900, the rough frontier settlement of wooden buildings and sandy streets had been transformed into a bustling town with brick buildings and streets, a streetcar line, and many social and cultural opportunities. Largely due to the growth of Ybor City, Tampa’s population had jumped to almost 16,000.
Ybor City grew and prospered during the first decades of the 20th Century. Thousands of residents built a proud community that combined Cuban, Spanish, Italian, and Jewish culture into a unique mix. “Ybor City is Tampa’s Spanish India,” observed a visitor to the area, “What a colorful, screaming, shrill, and turbulent world.”
An important aspect of life were the mutual aid societies built and sustained mainly by ordinary citizens. These clubs were founded in Ybor's early days (the first was the Centro Español, established in 1891) and were run on dues collected from their members, usually 5% of a member's salary. In exchange, members and their whole family received services including free libraries, educational programs, sports teams, restaurants, numerous social functions like dances and picnics, and free medical services. Beyond the services, these clubs served as extended families and communal gathering places for generations of Ybor's citizens.
There were clubs for each ethnic division in the community – the Deutscher-Americaner Club (for German and eastern Europeans), L’Unione Italiana (for Italians), El Circulo Cubano (for light-skinned Cubans), La Union Marti-Maceo (for darker-skinned Cubans), El Centro Español (for Spaniards), and the largest, El Centro Asturiano, which accepted members from any ethnic group.
Although there was little racism in Ybor City, Tampa's Jim Crow laws at the time forbade Afro-Cubans from belonging to the same social organization as their lighter-skinned countrymen. Sometimes, differences in skin color within the same family made joining the same Cuban club impossible. In general, the rivalries between all the clubs were friendly, and families were known to switch affiliations depending on which one offered preferred services and events.
Cigar production hit its peak in 1929, when 500,000,000 cigars were rolled in the factories of Ybor City.Not coincidentally, that was also the year that the Great Depression began.
The Depression was a major blow to cigar manufacturers. Worldwide demand plummeted as consumers sought to cut costs by switching to less-expensive cigarettes, and factories responded by laying off workers or shutting down. This trend continued throughout the 1930s as the remaining cigar factories gradually switched from traditional hand-rolled manufacturing to cheaper mechanized methods, further reducing the number of jobs and the salaries paid to workers.
After the World War II, many returning veterans chose to leave Ybor City due to a lack of well-paying jobs and a US Veterans Administration home loan program that was only applicable to new homes, of which there were few in the neighborhood. In fact, the home stock was aging poorly, as many of the structures built in the early days of Ybor City were still in use.
As the historic neighborhood continued to empty out and deteriorate through the 1950s and 60s, the federal Urban Renewal program sought to revitalize the area by demolishing older structures and encouraging new residential and commercial development. The demolition took place, but due to a lack of funds, the redevelopment did not happen. The primary legacy of the program were blocks of vacant lots which would remain empty for decades. The construction of Interstate 4 through the center of the neighborhood during this period also resulted in the destruction of many buildings and cut most of the north-south routes through the area.
By the early 1970s, very few businesses and residents remained, most notably the Columbia Restaurant and a few other businesses along 7th Avenue.
Starting in the late 1980s, an influx of artists seeking interesting and inexpensive studio quarters started a slow recovery, followed by a period of commercial gentrification. By the early 1990s, many of the old long-empty brick buildings on 7th Avenue had been converted into bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and other nightlife attractions. Traffic grew so much that the city built parking garages and closed 7th Ave. to traffic to deal with the sudden explosion of visitors.
Since around 2000, the city of Tampa and the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce have encouraged a broader emphasis in development. With financial help from the city, Centro Ybor, a family-oriented shopping complex and movie theater, opened in the former home of the Centro Español social club. New apartments, condominiums and a hotel have been built on long-vacant lots, and old buildings have been restored and converted into residences and hotels. New residents began moving into Ybor City for the first time in many years. The blocks surrounding 7th Avenue also thrive with restaurants and nightlife. Around 2007 LGBT-friendly GaYbor has come about featuring many Gay bars and similar establishments on the west end of Ybor. Reflecting the district's status as a party destination, Ybor City is referenced extensively in the lyrics of Brooklyn-based rock band The Hold Steady. The song "Killer Parties," for instance, contains the line "Ybor City is très speedy, but they throw such killer parties."In May 2009 Swedish super retailer IKEA opened its long-awaited Tampa location in the southern edge of Ybor City.